Soapbox: The Shame Of Revisiting My Abandoned Pokémon Ranch 5
Image: Nintendo Life

Soapbox features enable our individual writers and contributors to voice their opinions on hot topics and random stuff they've been chewing over. Today, on the 15th anniversary of the game's release, Ethan heads back to the ranch...

It’s a guilty feeling that Animal Crossing fans know all too well — the shame that comes with booting up a real-time virtual world after weeks, months, or even years away and having cutesy characters pitifully acknowledge your prolonged absence. While many Pokémon games have gameplay based on the passage of real-world time, the franchise has generally shied away from the idea of having a persistent world that keeps going even when you’re not there. However, one spin-off dared to translate that real-time mechanic, emotional manipulation and all, into the Pokémon world. Its name is My Pokémon Ranch.

This little oddity was released as a digital-only game on WiiWare in 2008, a time when mainline Pokémon entries were reserved for handhelds while home consoles mainly got peripheral experiences. Made by Ambrella, the developer behind several Pokémon spin-off titles — including Hey you, Pikachu!, Pokémon Channel, and the Pokémon Rumble series — My Pokémon Ranch specifically served as a companion piece to Pokémon Diamond and Pearl, and, later, Pokémon Platinum, allowing players to store hundreds of extra ‘Mons à la the modern-day Pokémon HOME app on Switch and mobile. However, this game also had its very own special gimmick: tossing all those stored creatures into a virtual ranch, where players could interact with them, assign Miis as ranch hands, and get incentives to check in on their little buddies each and every day.

Soapbox: The Shame Of Revisiting My Abandoned Pokémon Ranch 6
Image: Nintendo Life

That’s all well and good — except for the fact that I abandoned my ranch around 2011 and didn’t come back for nearly an entire decade. I only learned of this unsavory fact when I dug my dusty Wii out of storage back in 2020 and booted the game up out of curiosity. Upon doing so, resident rancher NPC Hayley cheerily greeted me with this absolute gut punch of a message: “Long time no see! I haven’t seen you for 9 years! The Pokémon missed you so much!”

Upon seeing this message, I did what any reasonable person would do: I shut the game down and didn’t touch it for another three years. It was just the other day, when I learned that My Pokémon Ranch was nearing its 15th anniversary in the West, that I decided to accept my well-deserved guilt trip and see what had become of my old stomping grounds. Suffice to say, it was a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

Long time no Seaking

Soapbox: The Shame Of Revisiting My Abandoned Pokémon Ranch 1
Image: Nintendo Life

After getting past the sting of Hayley mentioning that I had been gone for yet another 1000+ days, I took stock of the ranch.

Various Pokémon, each styled in a low-polygon chibi form, milled about the enclosure. A few were napping, while others wriggled around with surprising enthusiasm. I found Mii versions of myself, my parents, and my good friend dutifully tending to the monsters. At least some version of me had been living up to my ranching responsibilities for all these years.

All told, things weren’t as bad as I had expected. Unlike Animal Crossing, there were no weeds to pull out and cockroaches to stomp, nor were there any conversations with characters asking where the heck I’ve been outside of that initial chat with Hayley. Nonetheless, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was an outsider to this place now. Despite me being the one to start the ranch many moons ago, I barely remembered a thing about how to engage with its routine events and its resident Pokémon. It was only after attempting to refamiliarize myself with the game interface and menus that I discovered an even worse guilt trip was yet to come.

It's a Tentacruel, cruel world

As a preface, My Pokémon Ranch doesn’t have all the quality-of-life functionality that later storage titles like Pokémon Bank and Pokémon HOME would go on to introduce. Most crucially, each Pokémon in My Pokémon Ranch can only be withdrawn to the same specific save file it was deposited from. If that save file has been deleted or overwritten, then any Pokémon that originated from it will be trapped in My Pokémon Ranch forever.

Soapbox: The Shame Of Revisiting My Abandoned Pokémon Ranch 2
Image: Nintendo Life

I was admittedly nervous that I had doomed a few of my own ‘Mons to this Ranch-based fate, since my childhood save files for the Gen 4 titles are long gone. That wasn’t the case, as my childhood self had apparently had the foresight to withdraw my team members from the game before I cut and ran. However, what I discovered instead was arguably worse.

this cranky-looking blue jellyfish had spent a solid decade-plus sitting alone on my Wii without a single visitor

As it turned out, every single Pokémon on the ranch was actually an NPC brought there by Hayley. That is, all except for one: a Level 38 Tentacruel that my friend had deposited.

I’ll refrain from passing judgment on my friend’s standing as a responsible Pokémon Trainer. What I will say is that I was downright mortified to discover this cranky-looking blue jellyfish had spent a solid decade-plus sitting alone on my Wii without a single visitor or even a fellow deposited team member to keep it company. Worse still, I know for a fact that Tentacruel’s original save file has long since been deleted, meaning that it’s stuck in My Pokémon Ranch for the rest of time. Never again will it see battle, learn new moves, or eat a Poffin. It’s on permanent retirement.

Trying to assuage my guilt, I attempted to play around with Tentacruel. In doing so, I started to remember why I abandoned the ranch in the first place. This game is dull. Customizability is practically non-existent, and interactivity with Pokémon mostly amounts to picking them up with the Wii cursor and dropping them somewhere else, or trying to get them to play with a toy.

I opened up one of the boxed toys near Tentacruel, which turned out to be a pitfall trap. Rather than the Pokémon doing anything, my own Mii jumped into the trap and fell down from the sky above, only to gleefully jump into it once again. He did this on loop about seven times before I gave up hope.

Hello I must be Goldeen

There’s undeniably a nostalgic charm that comes with revisiting My Pokémon Ranch today. In particular, it has a layer of quirky presentation that I think the decidedly sterile Pokémon HOME could learn a thing or two from.

Nonetheless, my trip back to my ranch left me with far more bittersweet and guilty feelings than the warm and fuzzy kind. Sorry and so long, Tentacruel — I promise I’ll come back to visit. Just give me another few years to work up the willpower.

Soapbox: The Shame Of Revisiting My Abandoned Pokémon Ranch 7
Image: Nintendo Life